Thursday, June 27, 2024

Walk the Line (2)

 He talked of poetry and Cornish saints;
He kept an apiary and a cow;
He asked me which church service I liked best —
I told him Evensong… “And I suppose
You think religion’s mostly singing hymns
And feeling warm and comfortable inside?”
And he was right: most certainly I did.
                 John Betjeman

Paul Screeton dedicates an extended chapter of Quicksilver Heritage to UFOs. It opens with a rather moving account of a childhood holiday in the 1950s: 

"Once upon a time a small boy stayed for his summer holidays with distant relatives at a house in the scenic village of Redmire in Yorkshire in Wensleydale, where time passes so slow. He had a den at the bottom of the garden, beyond the nettles, where newts were hoarded in a glass tank..."

After a couple of paragraphs in this vein, he reveals that, during the holiday, he saw "a discoid golden craft" manoeuvring over Pen Hill.

"Years later the small boy read books about flying saucers, eventually heard of leys, began publishing a magazine on the two subjects and subsequently wrote this book. That day at Redmire my future path was marked."

The light is extraterrestrial rather than celestial; but meadow, grove and stream appear to be apparelled in it.  Everything else follows from that visionary gleam.  A charming holiday; a UFO sighting; a book about English pathways; enlightenment and the great work of the alchemist. Join the dots. My future path. The old straight track. 

The point is not that Alfred Watkins drew some lines on a map. That wouldn't be particularly interesting. The point isn't even that stone-age man might have used stones or trees to find his way. He very probably did. Hikers sometimes use churches as landmarks, or used to before the invention of mobile phones. Churches are very often aligned East-West, but that doesn't prove that the Ramblers Association are sun-worshippers. But ley lines aren't a theory; they are an epiphany. 

"Alfred Watkins discovery was in the nature of a vision" writes Screeton. "The revelation took the form of a rush of images forming a coherent whole. The insight...was as breathtaking as any vision any shaman, guru or mystic has experienced."

John Michell goes a lot further. "Suddenly in a flash he saw something which no-one in England had seen for perhaps thousands of years...The barrier of time melted and spread across the country, he saw a web of lines, linking holy places and sites of antiquity...In one moment of transcendent perception Watkins entered the magic world of prehistoric Britain, a world whose very existence has been forgotten."

If ley-lines are real, then it makes perfect sense that believers look for big, dramatic markers on maps, and then for smaller, less obvious markers on the ground. You'd expect them to have compasses and spirit levels and metal detectors and spades. Maybe they'd divide an area up into squares, and catalogue what was in each square, and look for statistically significant patterns. 

But this is not how Screeton and Michell envisage the Quest proceeding. 

"....He will walk through sunlit glades, meditate under gospel oaks, rest his weary feet on special mounds while listening to highflying skylarks....Slowly he will become attuned to the scene; his perception having shifted, there will appear a vibrant countryside humming not only with the buzz of bumblebees, the call of the curlew, or the scamper of rabbits, but throughout it all, the energy of nature, and criss-crossing it, always straight, the heartbeat of magic power which keep it alive...."

My paperback edition of Quicksilver Heritage was published in 1977.  A not insignificant date. If you wanted to, you could sum up the entire message of the book in five words.  "May the force be with you".

We are sometimes told that there is a thing called spirituality in all religious faiths. Politicians sometimes say that they support religious education because it promotes this thing called spirituality. Sometimes they say that they would happily get rid of religious education altogether and teach this spirituality thing instead. Spirituality has recently been repackaged as "mindfulness" -- as if that part of Buddhism where you sit facing a wall not thinking of anything in particular can be detached from the noble eightfold path and sold to people with boring stressful soul-destroying jobs as a technique for not minding too much. Different people: same old opium. 

But I guess we broadly know what spirituality is. It's what Daleks and Chatbots don't have. It's the bit which Thomas Gradgrind and Richard Dawkins don't believe in. Two chaps see a waterfall: one says "this is pretty" and the other says "this is sublime". But the third chap feels that it is imbued with significance and importance and meaning that he can't quite put into words. That thing which he can't put into words is spirituality. 

And there will probably be a fourth man saying that if you can't put it into words and express it to three significant figures and a margin for error, that it doesn't exist. Even the word "pretty" is a bit dodgy.

Evangelicals and Charismatics are inclined to reduce Christianity to a feeling -- an intense, personal moment of being "saved"; an ecstatic, shamanistic hysteria which sometimes breaks out at religious performances. They talk about "getting religion" and "being full of glory"; they may be "slain in the spirit" or start to "speak in tongues".

I don't know how many people in the born-again community have honestly experienced this. I don't know how common it is to have an overwhelmingly specific sensation of "making peace within" and "having your vile sins lifted". I strongly suspect that most of them merely point to a particular moment when they vaguely thought "Maybe I'll swing by that church and find out what they do there" or "This preacher seems to be making a lot more sense than I expected him to" and defined that as their moment of being Saved. They talk about chains falling off and dungeons flaming with light after the event because that's the kind of language they've been taught to use. The New Testament has a good deal to say about upper rooms and roads to Damascus, but you'd have to search quite hard for the primacy of the conversion experience.

If you start out with the idea that the world is a huge battle between God and Screwtape it's not so hard to attribute spiritual significance to every day vicissitudes. "Satan hid my keys. I thought this was because he wanted to make me late for work. But in fact, he was trying to provoke me to use vulgar language. I resisted the temptation to swear. And sure enough, God revealed that I had put the key-fob down right by the kettle, like I always do. And then Satan departed from me, biding his time."

And that's not necessarily an unhelpful or unhealthy way of thinking. If anything has a spiritual dimension than everything does. And it did stop you from saying shit. But the fact that you lost your keys and found them again is not, I think, proof of the existence of God. Or Screwtape. Or anyone else.

If you have a strong belief that there is a magic line between Warwick Castle and Stratford-on-Avon Parish Church, then it is not particularly surprising that, when you walk along the line, you start to notice things that you wouldn't have noticed if you hadn't been looking for them. And if that makes you love this English earth more than you ever did before -- if it makes you feel that you are at some spiritual level transmuting base metal into gold -- I have not the slightest intention of telling you that it's not true. 

It's the concrete claims which are problematic. 

"To say that leys do not exist is to say that motorways do not exist. Both can be found on maps."

No, they can't. 

 "To say that ley power does not exist is to say that electricity does not exist. Both can be felt."

No, they can't. 

I come back to one of the men who taught me Chaucer at college. One day, out for a walk on a very cold night, he found a baby, abandoned in a telephone box. He took the infant to hospital; she recovered; he became her godfather. If he had gone for his walk at a slightly different time or on a slightly different path, the baby would certainly have died. He later described the event as "Providential". 

"I do not mean that if I did not already believe in Providence this event would have made me do so, but that, since I have that belief, the event fits readily to it."

You don't need to believe in flying saucers to think that if you get away from it all for a while, you will start to perceive sermons in stones and books in the running brooks. Alfred Watkins was hardly the first person to think that one murmur from the vernal Brook will teach you more of moral evil and of good than all the sages can. xxxx

Quicksilver Heritage mentions in passing that the early Christian Gnostics believed in a singular God; but that their unique insight was that humans could have direct contact with Him. A lot of Christians, particularly Christians of the born again protestant flavour, would say that "direct contact with God" is the unique selling point of Christianity.

Screeton suggests that the main point of ley lines is that they are a means of getting in touch with what he calls (following one John Keel) The Great Whatzit In The Sky. He's a bit vague as to whether The Great Whatzit is God or the Space People. I don't suppose it makes much difference. 

Joseph Campbell said that all mythology points us towards the Final Incomprehensible Mystery. He shares with the ley hunters the bad habit of drawing lines between things which have nothing in common. The Hero's Journey is every bit as imaginary and every bit as methodologically dubious as the ley system.

But that doesn't mean it isn't real. Joseph Campbell and Alfred Watkins had ideas, and we can't unthink them. We can't look at a stone circle without seeing lines of power. We can't watch a movie without seeing the Hero With a Thousand Faces. If all stories are true, then stories about stories are true to the power of truth. I rather suspect that the Final Incomprehensible Mystery and the Great Whatzit in the Sky are the same fella. 

Campbell tells the story of the western philosopher who asked a Shinto practitioner to explain the ideology and theology of his faith. 

"We don't have any ideology" replied the Shinto guy "We don't have any theology. We just dance."

Plenty of people would tell you that there is a nothing in the sky, great or otherwise. Plenty of people would tell you that nothing is mysterious, nothing is final and quite definitely nothing is incomprehensible. The belief in ley lines is a belief in something. Ley hunters don't have an ideology or a theology. They just went for a walk. 

The closest I ever got to actual ley hunting was a hiking holiday around Glastonbury when I was maybe nineteen. I was probably already too critical and too actually knowledgeable about the King Arthur literature to look at the landscape in quite the right light. I fairly consciously decided that if I was really interested in the Holy Grail, Glastonbury Abbey and Joseph of Arimathea, the most rational thing to be was a common or garden English Christian. I believe that is what pandits tell westerners who want to convert to Hinduism. It's Anglicans, not hippies, who literally drink from the chalice of Jesus's blood every Sunday. 

But the vibe -- the olden days England vibe, and the sense that stone circles are esoteric and mercurial never quite goes away. I deeply adore the Celestials and the Monolith. But Stone-Age-Man walking an invisible grid system and opening himself up to the Cosmos with a capital C has a magic all of its own. 

Quicksilver Heritage is a silly book. Researching this article I came across an essay (actually an interview) with one man who thinks that it is very silly indeed.  The "crystals, chakra, ether, orgone energy and spiritual bluff and guff" amounted to  "New Age pap" he says.  

"It now looks upon a quick scan" he goes on "like a right rag-bag of undiluted pseudoscience, pseudo-philosophy and too much following others’ woolly-thinking" 

The man expressing this opinion was, of course, Paul Screeton. He now describes himself as a gnostic Christian. 

I was there when it happened, so I guess I ought to know
Johnny Cash 

This is an epilogue to a series of articles on the Doctor Who story Stones of Blood. 

The whole series has already appeared on my Patreon. 

Patreon followers have also read my definitive guide to the UK election, and are about to read my essay on the Doctor Who story Androids of Tara.

It would be great if the majority of people reading this could join them. 

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: Stones of Blood (4)

VII: Tom

Stones of Blood is a terrible story. Stones of Blood is a terrible Doctor Who story. But this is not quite the same thing as saying that Stones of Blood is terrible.

It's entertaining. It's not boring. It's funny. It has a certain Doctor Who-ish quality to it, particularly if you are not paying attention. It's got Tom Baker in it. It's got Mary Tamm in it. And it's got K-9 in it. K-9 the annoying piece of hardware from Season 15 has become K-9 the character, K-9 the comic foil. We can no more imagine Tom Baker without K-9 than we can imagine Patrick Troughton without Jamie.

How are we supposed to watch Stones of Blood? The Doctor chained to an altar stone, menaced by unfriendly druids? The Doctor condemned to death by evil justice robots? Romana dangling from the edge of a cliff?

How do we react? Are we worried -- worried that the Doctor might die; as worried as we would be if we read in the news that a real-life person had been kidnapped by terrorists?

Do we think that is how the story is really going to end? "I guess I started watching too late: just in time to find out how this Doctor character finally dies?"

Or are we slightly more sophisticated viewers, but still focussed on what happens next. "I know, of course, that the Doctor will escape, but I wonder how he will pull it off? I wonder what ingenious solution the writers are going to come up with this week?"

The Librarians are Awesome Brigade keep on telling us that reading is a form of hallucination. As long as you are under the influence of a psychotropic novel, the people and places in the story are more real to you than your immediate surroundings. If you are aware of the hand of the author, the book has failed: the search for symbolism, sub-text and irony is antithetical to the reading experience.

And I suppose that is also how some people watch television. A TV show is an illusion. You believe that Inspector Morse and [Insert Name Of Eastenders Character Here] are real people whose lives you are observing. I am not talking about the very, very early cinema audiences who honestly thought that the steam train might come crashing through the screen and squish them. You are aware that it's all an illusion. You are perfectly well aware that Death In Paradise is not a fly-on-the-wall documentary about the day-to-day life of police officers on a Caribbean island. But it succeeds as drama precisely to the extent that you are able to pretend that it is. 

I guess that approach works for some TV shows better than others, in the same way that the Librarians Are Awesome approach applies to Lee Child more than it does to James Joyce.

Nothing against Lee Child. Nothing against James Joyce.

It may be that this kind of thinking lies behind the fannish obsession with canon and continuity. The more the scripts contradict each other, the harder it is to maintain the belief that what you are watching is reality TV. And it may lie behind a lot of chat about "special effects" and in particular "wobbly sets". If Matt Irvine (the special effects guy) is an illusionist -- trying to fool us into believing that we are actually having the experience of seeing a spaceship -- then we have to say that he is not very good at this job. Not as good as the folks at Industrial Light and Magic, anyway. But perhaps he is more in the nature of a storyteller -- a puppeteer  -- showing us an obvious model in order to suggest the idea of a spaceship?

The test case might, in fact, be Thunderbirds, which is explicitly a puppet show which shouts its artificiality from every frame. Some people like it a lot. Others not so much.

If drama is falsified reality TV -- if the excitement depends on our belief that the hero might really die -- then Doctor Who is and always has been an abject failure.

But perhaps our enjoyment of Doctor Who is more formal; more epicurean. We enjoy the idea of heroes chained to altars and heroines clinging to cliffs; we get aesthetic satisfaction from cliffhangers; even though we are way, way past finding them frightening or thrilling or thinking for one moment that our heroes may actually come to a soggy end.

Stones of Blood came out at the same time I was first reading Sherlock Holmes. I was also reading, gods of literature forgive me, the Shadow: little American paperbacks with yellow-edged pages and Steranko covers. The Shadow gets into cliff-hanging situations pretty often. Holmes, not so much. Although one story famously ends on a very literal one. In both cases, I liked the idea of the books more than I liked the actual books. I liked the pipe and slippers and the secret sanctum; the snarky chats with Watson and the secret messages to his agents; the opal fire ring and the hansom cabs; the invisible ink and the fussy landlady. There was almost a slight sense of disappointment when Holmes leaves Baker Street to solve some puzzle about a governess, a dog and a snake; or when the Shadow leaves his mysterious black lined radio studio to rescue a white lady from some terrifying racial stereotype. 

How do we feel when the Doctor wakes up and cracks a joke about the druid with the knife? Are we relieved because we honestly thought our friend the Doctor might have died? Or do we feel aesthetic pleasure because the hero has escaped from an archetypal death trap in a genre-appropriate fashion?

Do we smile because Tom Baker the actor has delivered a funny line in a wonderfully deadpan way? Or are we cross because the dramatic pulp cliffhanger scene has been turned into a skit?

Does the funny line enhance the sense of danger and adventure? Or does it explode, undermine, and undercut it? 

Did I watch Doctor Who mainly for the scenes on the TARDIS? Was I a little disappointed when they left the Ship and started on this week's Adventure? Graham Williams understands that there should be a moment on the TARDIS, a moment when K-9 fails to explain tennis to Romana, or when the Doctor leaves his hat on the uppsy-downsy control column for no reason. A moment when we are at home and all is right with the universe. And there should be a moment afterwards when normality resumes and everyone smiles and laughs and there is no Post Adventure Stress Disorder. The Doctor has been within seconds of execution twice in a single day, and is none the worse for the experience.

Who is Who for? For whom is Who?

In 1978 Doctor Who was the thing which happened to be on the screen of the receiving device which happened to be in your front room and happened to be switched on at the time. Some people simply ignored it, in the way that they ignored the music coming over the gramophone at a party and the pattern on Granny's wallpaper. Some were watching it less passively: but Stone Circles and Spaceships and evil squires and human sacrifices and cliffs were simply the kinds of things you would expect to be running past your eyes at that time on a Saturday evening. It was us fans, glued to the set and trying to get the sound track onto a C60 cassette (don't deny it) who were falsifying the experience. Just as we falsify it now with our blue-rays and our commentaries and our fan feuds.

Doctor Who starts to go wrong when it starts to assume that the audience is paying attention. Warriors' Gate is a much, much better story than Stones of Blood. But it is a much worse Doctor Who story, and arguably a much worse piece of television. 

Why did we switch on? We switched on to spend time with Tom. With Mary and K-9 as well, of course, but they exist mainly to put Tom's Tomness into sharper and sharper relief. No shame in that. In the days of vaudeville, straight men often commanded higher salaries than comedians.

Tom intersected with me in exactly the right years. Tom is the whole reason I fell in love with the show. Tom is the whole reason I fell in love with science fiction. Tom is the reason I am typing these words. Tom Baker is what everything built up to, and what everything which came afterwards failed to live up to. 

Not just everything in Doctor Who. Everything.

Graham Williams recognised that Tom Baker owned Doctor Who. Graham Williams sees that the only purpose of a script is to create a space for Tom Baker to be Tom Baker in. Graham Williams understands that as long as Tom Baker carries on being Tom Baker, people will carry on watching Doctor Who.

But a problem will emerge. Tom being Tom is not sufficient: we need Tom to be the Doctor. In the early seasons he had nuance. He was Tom Baker, the Actor. Tom Baker who had shared a stage (though no actual scenes) with Sir Laurence Olivier. Tom Baker who took all his clothes off for Pasolini, albeit fairly reluctantly. And that Tom Baker is fading away. The grin is gradually turning into a sneer. If the Doctor no longer takes the universe entirely seriously, that's because Tom Baker no longer takes Doctor Who entirely seriously.

And it works. Up to a point. One of the things we like about the Doctor is that he can stick his tongue out at Teacher and not get whacked. He resents authority figures, so naturally he resents being pushed around by the White Guardian. But the White Guardian is manifestly an authorial self insertion. The White Guardian is the personification of the Plot. And once the main character has rejected the Plot, the narrative falls apart. We're not watching a story about a hero being menaced by evil stone worshippers. We're just watching some big kids playing "human sacrifices".

Maybe Actor Tom despises the material. Maybe he's doing the best he can with material that David Fisher despises. It's funny; it's mesmerizing. But we're engaged in the deconstruction of the whole idea of Doctor Who. It is not going to end well.  

Tommy Cooper and John Cleese were just funny: their appearance, their demeanour, their presence. They could walk on to a stage and people would laugh. (This certainly isn't true of every comedian. Rowan Atkinson is famously dull without a script in front of him.) Maybe Tom Baker is just charismatic. Maybe Tom Baker is just the Doctor. Put him on a set and point a camera in his direction and we can't not love him. 

VIII: Ending

The Doctor defeats Viviane Fay, and says goodbye to Emilia.

She doesn't seem at all bothered that her friend, who she has shared a cottage with for at least several weeks, has been turned into stone for a billion years.

Actress Beatrix Lehmann was openly gay at a time when being openly gay wasn't a very safe thing to be. Graham Williams had wanted to hire Honor Blackman to play Vivian. (Honor Blackman correctly spotted that Beatrix Lehmann gets all the best lines.) Perhaps we are supposed to infer a slight -- frisson -- in the cottage? 

She give it all she's got; slightly too much, in fact, trying to make sense of some very silly lines. When Romana gently kisses her goodbye (she certainly never kisses the Doctor!) Emilia puts her hand very subtly on her cheek.

She is surprised that she has never noticed a Police Box on the moor before. She's old enough to remember when Police Boxes were a ubiquitous part of English street furniture, and doesn't know they have been phased out. Or maybe the story is set in the 1950s; there is no particular reason why it couldn't be.

And as the Doctor and Romana go into the TARDIS she acts at them. As the TARDIS disappears, she continues to acts ("I do have my academic reputation to consider"). And then she acts a bit more. She does a double-take. She sighs.

And once again, we expect to hear the signature tune; since the episode has quite clearly come to an end.

But for absolutely no reason we go back to the TARDIS, and we see the Doctor putting the segment in the cupboard, and we have a tiny homeopathic bit of business reminding us that he can't always tell how the segments fit together. And then we get a final exchange. 

Romana asks "Is Earth always like that?" A silly question: she is perfectly aware that what they have just experienced can in no way be thought of as a typical day on the blue planet. And the Doctor replies "Sometimes it's even exciting." 

He does not say "Sometimes, it's even more exciting". That would have made sense. That would have implied that what they had just been through was exciting, but that even more exciting things sometimes happen. But "sometimes it's even exciting" implies that what has just happened is not exciting. That the last adventure was dull. 

"Exciting" is not what you would say if you had a narrowly escaped being stabbed and sentenced to death on the same day. Traumatic would be nearly the mark. It's us viewers who are meant to find adventure stories exciting.

The Doctor has, once again, stepped out of the frame. He has commented on the story from the viewers point of view. He has said, in effect, "That was quite a dull story." And he's not wrong. 

And there you have it. Ribos Operation is not a Doctor Who story. Pirate Planet is a comedically extreme Doctor Who story. And Stones of Blood is a consciously bad Doctor Who story. Thesis; antithesis; synthesis. The metafiction remains intact. What will come next in the chain?

This is the fourth part of a series of articles on the Doctor Who story Stones of Blood. 

The whole series has already appeared on my Patreon. 

Patreon followers have also read my definitive guide to the UK election, and are about to read my essay on the Doctor Who story Androids of Tara.

It would be great if the majority of people reading this could join them. 

Answers To Readers Questions

Achille Talon said...

I tend to feel the Doctor (and Romana) can shrug off execution threats because they are, after all, Time Lords. What's a body? Romana could even probably reconstitute herself as Lalla Ward again, if she didn't fancy a surprise change; she turns out of Ward and back again in the Destiny scenes. When the Doctor treats deadly threats seriously, it's because he has a more fragile human companion by his side, and is more broadly concerned with threats running amok and killing ordinary people.

(Face the Raven: "Why? Why shouldn't I be so reckless? You're reckless! All the bloody time! Why can't I be like you?" "Clara, there's nothing special about me, I am nothing, but I'm less breakable than you. I should have taken care of you.")

Possibly there's a line to be drawn between the decision of pairing the Doctor up with a fellow immortal, rather than a human, and his increasing insulation from natural human reactions to deadly peril.

This is a very interesting point. 

There can certainly be stories about immortal or indestructible heroes. The trick is to create jeopardy even though the hero's own life can't be in danger, and perhaps to show him surviving ever more extreme perils: e.g Captain Scarlet goes into the centre of an nuclear explosion in order to retrieve a weapon to save Earth from the Mysterons. Or else you treat it as a puzzle and try to find out ways of killing the unkillable man. What if you cut Captain Scarlet up into little tiny pieces, and put each piece in a space rocket and send them to different corners of the galaxy? Can Superman survive indefinitely without food or oxygen, and if so, why does he eat and breath in the first place? But one never feels that Doctor Who is "playing" with regeneration and immortality in that way.

In classic Who, the definition of "regeneration" was always fuzzy. The term was only coined in Planet of the Spiders. I don't think that in 1978 we had reached the point where "Death means nothing to a Time Lord because they can live indefinitely" was established lore. The argument was made semi-officially that Hartnell > Troughton was a "rejuvenation" and Troughton > Pertwee was "a change of appearance". The Romana regeneration, which we will come to shortly, suggest that either Graham Williams didn't remember Planet of the Spiders, or else that he didn't care. And Logopolis introduces The Watcher without explanation and treats regeneration as slightly new and surprising thing. "Ho hum I'll probably regenerate" doesn't come in until Caves of Androzani.

What does regeneration mean for a Time Lord? For Romana, it is just like changing a dress; for the First Doctor, it's like coming out of a chrysalis; for the Second, like being forced to adopt an unattractive disguise. New Who seems to treat it like reincarnation: the present form is really dying; but some essential element is carried over into the new form. Krishna told Arjun that death in battle is nothing to be feared because he will go on to a new life; Arjun replies that since he will be leaving his friends and loved ones, death is still death even if you subsequently get another try at life. The point being, I think, that the problem is not mortality but attachment. 

When the Doctor and Romana think that the TARDIS is going to be destroyed in Pirate Planet, they say that its been an honour to have known each other. When the Doctor goes to sabotage the nuke in Power of Kroll, he says goodbye to Romana in case he doesn't come back. When going to confront the giant squid he says that he has had a good life and can't complain if he dies. ("That's him saying that the Fourth Doctor has had a good life; bidding farewell to this incarnation." No: he specifically says that 760 is a great age, and that's clearly not the number of years he's been Tom Baker for.) 

I think that each individual Who story is constructed on the basis that the Doctor is putting his life on the line and that he could die; and that he would face death in the way that any brave (and spiritually serene) mortal would. I think regeneration is treated as a special case; and that there is a pact with the audience that it only happens when an actor wants to leave. 

Indeed, we could argue that the literary device which allows multiple actors to play the part of the Doctor deconstructs the narrative in which the Doctor is admirable because he risks his life for the greater good. It could, in fact, be that the introduction of the Twelve Regeneration limit in Deadly Assassin was Holmes' attempt to repair this crack. The fans who continued to argue right up to 2017 that the Twelve Regeneration was involatile and unchangeable might have been unconsciously recognising this point: if Capaldi isn't the last and final Doctor then the Doctor can't die and the series can't ever be exciting again. Many kids go through a stage of thinking that first person narratives aren't exciting, because they know that the hero must survive to tell the story. Which is a good point, in a way, but kind of misses the point of stories.

All that said "The Doctor laughs in the face of death because he knows he will Regenerate" is a perfectly good Watsonian description of what happens; and is a good work-around if "The Doctor is a meta-textual device who can break the fourth wall" is uncongenial.

Thursday, June 20, 2024

Doctor Who Season 16: Stones of Blood (3)

 V: Spaceship

So: Vivien Fay teleports Romana to a spaceship. The Doctor, back on earth, cobbles together a teleportation device of his own. Despite the scarfs and cakes and toreadors, he is still at heart a boffin. He teleports to the ship to rescue Romana; but Vivien zaps the machine, leaving the Doctor and Romana both trapped.

"Too late now, Doctor" she explains "I've destroyed your pitiful little machine. There's no way out for you. You're trapped in hyperspace forever".

It's a vintage piece of Doctor Who villain-speak. As if "pitiful" wasn't sufficient, she pronounces the last sentence "You're trapped in hyperspace... ... ... ... for EVAH!" And then she laughs. The "bwah-ha-ha" laugh that villains always do at the end of episodes. And then the camera zooms in a little closer to her face.

Fifteen years and four hundred and eighty seven episodes scream at us that we should go into the closing credits at this point.



Dum-ba-de-dum, dum-ba-de-dum... Wee war....

But they don't come.

Instead we cut to a reverse establishing shot of the hyper-space-ship. Which we have already seen, and which isn't particularly impressive. Only then does the music start. The pause wrong foots us. It's almost as if the show itself is embarrassed by the cliche.

It doesn't particularly matter what the hyperspace prison ship looks like. Nothing in the plot depends on it. It isn't a reveal -- we're not being told "Ha-ha: they were on a spaceship all the time!" We know where we are. There are corridors and panels and sliding doors everywhere. 

A tiny point: a really tiny point. But it suggests that we are watching a version of Doctor Who that is not completely comfortable in its skin. It offers up beloved tropes and steps away from them. It follows conventions and simultaneously breaks them.

And it is 1978. The only thing which the lingering shot of the model hanging in front of the painted backdrop says is "This show is really quaint and amateurish compared with Star Wars."

VI: Wig

Hands up if you remember Crown Court? 

Hands up if it is forever associated in your mind with being off school with the flu or a tummy ache -- with Cup-a-Soup, Lucuzade and Hickory House? 

Hands up if you remember the name of the fictional town where it was set? And if you know why that name has since become a bit of an in-joke? 

Crown Court was a thrice weekly TV show that came on after the lunch-time news on ITV. Three twenty five minute episodes depicting a fictional trial. A tight, elegant format: prosecution on Monday; defence on Tuesday; verdict on Wednesday. 

The procedure was legally correct; the cast were played by actors but the jury were made up of members of the public who were on the electoral role and eligible for jury service. With the exception of the foreman, who usually had a line of dialogue and therefore had to have an Equity card and a mention in the end credits. 

It must have been terribly cheap to make, because it all took place on a single set. But it had decent actors. I remember Patrick Troughton having an outburst and being taken down to the cells to cool off. The format was flexible: you could do a story about white witches desecrating the local graveyard one week, and one about a farmer suing a market for selling him an infertile bull the next. One week it turned into a completely surreal self-parody. 

Quite often, the plot illustrated a specific, interesting, legal question. I recall one which turned on whether an expert witness could persuade a jury to doubt the veracity of fingerprint evidence. I am sure that anyone from the legal profession would laugh it out of...well, out of court. But it felt authentic.

David Fisher (writer of Stones of Blood) contributed a dozen stories to Crown Court. I guess it was a good gig for a jobbing freelance. I have just been watching one of them. Entitled simply Treason, it is pretty lurid by the standards of 1970s lunchtime TV. The Accused is a white supremacist mercenary who has participated in an inept coup on a fictional British colony in the Caribbean. Fifteen people died, and on his return to England he has been charged with treason against the crown.

It's contrived as hell; of course, but it's well scripted, well acted, and oddly compelling. The Prosecution barrister is played by a disconcertingly young Richard Wilson: you kind of wish that instead of accusing one of the witnesses of presenting a tissue of lies, he could have shouted "I don't BELIEVE it." Of course the Defence produce a comms expert to argue that Special Branch have doctored their phone-tap evidence to make it more incriminating that it is. Of course the prosecution notice that the expert witness's address is a local farm. Would it be true to say that you in fact live in a commune? Would it be true to say that you are in fact an anarchist?

"We don't believe in definitions."

"No further questions m'lud."

The defence argues that since the accused isn't a British citizen (he's a white Belgian planter from Congo) he can't, by definition be a traitor, since he owes no allegiance to the British crown. The Judge explains that in English law, allegiance is reciprocal, and since he was married to an English woman and ran a business in England, he owed allegiance to the Queen whether he had a British passport or not. So everything depends on whether he divested himself of his British property before or after he led the coup; and whether his wife filed for divorce before he left or after he returned.

Episode Three always ends with a caption saying "The Verdict". In this case, the Jury agrees with the Prosecution and finds the ex-mercenary guilty of Treason. So the judge gets to try on his black cap, and the end credits roll without a theme tune. The next case was about someone who'd been stabbed with a kebab fork at a swingers' party.

This is all just about legally believable. Although the death penalty for murder was abolished in the UK in 1965, capital punishment technically remained on the statute books for treason, piracy and military sabotage until 1998. Justice Donaldson famously opined that the four men convicted of the 1974 Guildford pub bombings should have been charged with treason (as opposed to the lessor crime of terrorism) and hanged. Since they were all subsequently exonerated, it's probably just as well no-one paid any attention to him. 

Because Crown Court was a purely legal drama, it didn't have any interest in the political ramifications of a capital trial in 1973. One imagines that the court would have been stuffed to the brim with hysterical tabloid reporters; and that the Home Secretary would have instantly commuted any death sentence to life imprisonment. The Isle of Man was allowed to retain the death penalty until 1993, on the strict condition that they didn't actually execute anyone.

Now: we have talked before about how frequently the death penalty is used as a motif in Doctor Who. Not just mortal peril; not merely cliffhangers or death-traps: the specific threat of capital punishment. The Captain makes the Doctor walk the plank; the Graf puts him in front of a firing squad; Federico tries to have him beheaded; the Master frames him for murder on Gallifrey.

So it is interesting that David Fisher, who brought the noose to a genteel lunch-break drama show, chose, in the second half of Stones of Blood, to once again put the Doctor on trial for his life. 

The plot, such as it is, runs as follows: the Doctor has beamed up to the hyper-space prison ship to rescue Romana. The ship appears deserted, and he uses the sonic screwdriver to open a cabin door. He releases two aliens, who describe themselves as "justice machines". Opening a cabin door without authorisation is a serious offence; and they sentence the Doctor to death. 

Judge Mowbray in Crown Court told the Jury to disregard the possibility of a death sentence when considering their verdict. "It is for the judge to sentence, and for the jury to weigh the evidence and arrive at a just verdict." But the language of Fisher's justice machines is more in line with Judge Dredd.

"We are the law. Judge, jury and executioner. Once we have arrived at our verdict, we execute it. Without fear or favour; impartially."

In the early instalments, Dredd occupied a position somewhere between that of a Wild West sheriff and a state-sanctioned vigilante: he spotted wrongdoers and shot them on the spot. But very rapidly, he morphed into a cop who could summarily send crooks to jail. "I am the law" is one of his catchphrases. Fisher must have been aware of 2000AD. Dredd enforces the law in Mega City One: the justice robots who have captured the Doctor are called Megara.

But the Megara are not vigilantes or assassins. They are portrayed as caricatures of English lawyers. They say things like "contrition is to be accounted in the accused's favour" and "your evidence is immaterial." 

Now, one can perfectly well imagine a science fiction story in which "opening the door" turns out to be a terrible local taboo. Star Trek did that kind of thing several times. But the Megara don't seem to regard door opening as especially heinous: they merely treat execution as a routine form of chastisement for any and all rule-breaking.

Crown Court depicts an ideal vision of the English justice system: everyone is allowed a fair hearing and the judge is careful to make sure that the jury understands both sides of the argument. At one point he politely asks a witness not to use so much slang in case the jury don't understand him. The lawyers don't leap to their feet and cry out "Objection!"; they politely say things like "M'lud, I really fail to see the relevance of this line of questioning..." The trial in Stones of Blood is purely Kafkaesque: the Doctor is tried in his absence and convicted of something he could not conceivably have known was against the law when he did it. The "justice machines" are a bit like Lord Melchet who sent for his black cap before he has heard any evidence from either side because he would need it later. ("I do love a fair trial" remarks Captain Blackadder.)

The Megara allow the Doctor to appeal against his death sentence, but they state in advance that he is going to be killed in any case: 

"In accordance with article fourteen of the legal code, subsection one three five, this humanoid's execution is stayed for two hours while we graciously consent to hear his appeal. Afterwards, the execution will take place as ordered."

They reiterate it in the next scene: 

"The court has considered the request of the humanoid, hereinafter known as the Doctor. In order to speed up the process of law, it will graciously permit him to conduct his own appeal, prior to his execution."

So maybe what Fisher is aiming at is something like Alice in Wonderland: "sentence first, verdict after." Which would be consistent with the show's descent into dreamlike surrealism.

In a real legal system, laws are there to provide clarity and transparency: it is written in technical language to remove any possible ambiguity or misunderstanding. The Crown Court judge carefully explains legal concepts to the jury in plain English. Stones of Blood depicts the law as an exercise in obfuscation: obscure procedures which override common sense or natural justice, which no-one but a lawyer could possibly understand. ("Article twenty three of the legal code, subsection seventeen.")

While the Doctor is presented as an anti-establishment figure standing up against unfair authority figures; the underlying idea (that "the law" stands against simple principles of right and wrong) is in fact deeply illiberal. It's right wing tabloids who complain that a criminal "got off" when the jury declare that he wasn't proven guilty. It's right-wingers who complain about liberal lawyers holding prosecutors to the rules. ("He got off on a technicality.") It's Batman who says that he no longer cares about the law, only about what is right. The alternative to pedantic lawyers is trial by public opinion and lynch-law.

So, the Doctor is on trial for his life. He is going to mount his own defence. The stakes could not be higher. He calls the only witness he could possibly call: Romana. 

And then he reaches into his pocket....and pulls out a wig. He puts it on his head, and continues his defence.

In the RPG Toon, a character can have a "gizmo" in his back pocket; where a "gizmo" is an object which will transform into exactly the thing the character needs when he takes it out. (This is also how Batman's utility belt functions in the DC Heroes RPG.) It has long been a running gag that the Doctor has magic pockets; or else that he is so clever and so lucky that he always just happens to be carrying the exact think that he is most likely to need that day. No-one has ever given a story-internal reason that his pockets work this way: it's more fun left as a running gag. 

But why an English lawyer's wig? Romana would expect him to wear one of those Gallifreyan skullcaps, like the Inquisitor wears in Trial of a Time Lord. The Megara presumably don't care about uniforms at all. I can only assume that the Doctor is taunting Viviane -- she's lived on earth for centuries and presumably knows something about British legal etiquette.

But what is he communicating to her by putting the wig on? "I'm such a complete idiot that I think this alien spaceship functions like an English court"? Or perhaps "I understand the law very well and can easily get myself acquitted" ?

Romana is sworn in, with an oath that goes  "I swear to tell the truth, as far as I, a mere humanoid, am capable of knowing the truth." Again, it is perfectly possible that advanced lawyer robots might regard human testimony as intrinsically unreliable. The dramatically believable thing, I suppose, would be for them to treat Romana as the judge on Crown Court would have treated a young child: "Now then; do you know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie....?" That would also have been quite funny.

But we're not trying to imagine how an alien court might work. We're creating a parody of the oath in an English or American court. It reminds me, slightly, of the scene in Flash Gordon where Dale is forced to marry Ming. Presumably, Mongo would have its own religious traditions and rituals: but in the movie, they play Wagner's wedding march and use a burlesque version of the English prayer book. ("Do you, Ming the Merciless, ruler of the universe, take this Earthling, Dale Arden, to be your Empress of the hour? Do you promise to use her and  not to blast her into space ...until you grow weary of her?")

Once Romana has taken her oath, the camera goes back to the Doctor. While we were looking the other way, he has acquired a court brief. Did that happen to be in his pockets as well, or did the Megara sportingly give them to him? But why do they look like the kinds of papers that would be used in an English court? Why do the Megara use paper at all? Are we in some sort of cyberspace information system where data-bases are given a visual appearance that the user feels comfortable with?

It's a silly question. And one that, in all fairness, wouldn't occur to us on a first, second or third viewing of the show. The oath, the wig, and the legal papers are, if anything, a Whitehouse-friendly wink at the audience. The kids who thought that the Doctor really drowned in Deadly Assassin Part Three; and who might have thought that Tom Baker had really pushed Mary Tamm off a cliff have to be reassured that the Doctor isn't really going to be disintegrated. (The sinister end credits in Crown Court were intended to suggest that the traitor really was going to be hanged.) It's a little bit like when Play School used to reassure the kids that none of the ten green bottles had really been damaged. Blue Peter presenter Peter Duncan had a bit part in the aforementioned Flash Gordon. Whenever the movie was going to be on TV, they showed his clip on Blue Peter, and reassured the audience that he was just acting and hadn't really been killed by a venomous snake. 

The Doctor treats the trial as an annoying inconvenience; he doesn't at any point behave as if he is in the slightest danger of being killed. The scenes keep undermining any sense of secondary reality: we are watching a group of kids playing at death sentences. 

Kids can be morbid. Several of the popular pantomimes involve child murder. The London Dungeon and the Horrid History series play off an interest in gore. But condemning your benevolent Santa Claus surrogate to death on a near weekly basis is an interesting aesthetic choice. 

Fisher, Williams and Read would have grown up at a time when the British state was regularly strangling its own citizens: they would have vivid memories of the grotesque miscarriages of justice that led to the abolition of the death penalty. Is it possible that the jokey, off hand references to killing are a delayed traumatic response? Are we breathing a collective sigh of relief that such things no longer happen in the real world? The kids comics of the day were still eliciting nervous laughter from the idea of corporal punishment.

But perhaps it's more like Talons of Weng-Chiang and the Black & White Minstrels Show. It makes us feel uncomfortable now; but that's because times have changed. In 1978, executions, racial stereotypes and cruelty to children were just a bit of fun.

This is the fourth part of a series of articles on the Doctor Who story Stones of Blood. 

The whole series has already appeared on my Patreon. 

Patreon followers have also read my definitive guide to the UK election, and are about to read my essay on the Doctor Who story Androids of Tara.

It would be great if the majority of people reading this could join them.